France cancels talks with UK on Channel migrants crisis

Invitation to Priti Patel to attend talks withdrawn after Johnson tweets letter

French president Emmanuel Macron has claimed that Britain is "not serious" on solving the migrant crisis after UK prime minister Boris Johnson posted a letter, which he had sent to Macron on the issue, on Twitter. Video: Reuters


Relations between France and Britain reached a post-Brexit low on Friday when Paris cancelled its invitation to home secretary Priti Patel to take part in a meeting in Calais on Sunday, and President Emmanuel Macron accused prime minister Boris Johnson of not being “serious” about addressing the problem of illegal migration across the English Channel.

The dispute flared after 27 people – 17 men, seven women and three children – drowned while attempting to cross the channel in an inflatable dinghy on Wednesday.

On Thursday night, Mr Johnson posted a letter on Twitter ostensibly addressed to the French president, just in time to make British newspaper headlines on Friday morning. Mr Macron had no previous knowledge of the text, which proposes sending migrants who cross the Channel immediately back to France.

“If those who reach this country were swiftly returned, the incentive for people to put their lives in the hands of traffickers would be significantly reduced,” Mr Johnson tweeted. The policy would, he alleged, save thousands of lives by putting traffickers out of business.

The letter also proposed that the French and British coast guards be allowed to patrol in each other’s territorial waters. It advocated hi-tech aerial surveillance and closer intelligence cooperation.

Speaking at a press conference in Rome on Friday morning, Mr Macron said, “I spoke two days ago with prime minister Johnson in a serious way. For my part I continue to do that, as I do with all countries and all leaders. I am surprised by methods when they are not serious. We do not communicate from one leader to another on these issues by tweets and letters that we make public.”

In the immediate aftermath of the drowning tragedy, the British and French leaders vowed to improve cooperation. France had invited Ms Patel to attend the summit with her French, Belgian, Dutch and German counterparts – all of whom have maritime borders on the English Channel – and the European Commission.

‘A disappointment’

Interior minister Gérald Darmanin, Ms Patel’s French counterpart, wrote to her saying that Mr Johnson’s letter to Mr Macron was “a disappointment” and that “making it public made it even worse. I therefore need to cancel our meeting in Calais on Sunday.” The meeting will go ahead without British representation.

The Macron administration believes that Mr Johnson’s inability to fulfil his Brexit promise to “take back control” of illegal migration across the channel has embarrassed him politically, and that he is trying to blame France to distract attention from his own failure. The number of migrants reaching the UK via the Channel tripled this year.

French officials have accused Mr Johnson’s government of duplicity on the migration issue, saying the British cooperate with France behind the scenes while seeking confrontation in public.

The French government’s official spokesman, Gabriel Attal, told BFM TV that Mr Johnson’s letter failed to recognise the work done by the French police, coast guard and lifeboat crews. A “relocation” agreement was, “clearly not what is needed to solve this problem”, Mr Attal said. “We are sick and tired of this double talk and outsourcing of problems . . . What we need is for the British to send immigration officers to France to examine here, on French territory, demands for asylum in Britain.”

Immigration is a major issue in the French presidential campaign, and Mr Macron, whose country will assume the presidency of the EU in January, is keen to show that Europe can achieve a more efficient immigration policy.

Also on Friday, French fishermen blocked Channel ferry ports and stopped freight entering the Channel tunnel, to protest at dramatically reduced access to fish in British waters since Brexit.